While courtship is premised on a showering of gifts and benevolence to one’s partner, being a tightwad and hoarding for one’s self often signals the beginning of the end. No surprise.
Money can often end up becoming the main source of tension within a marriage, ultimately leading to a divorce.
I recently had a case where the husband, a sophisticated, forward-thinking man well into his 50’s, could not stop talking about his bar mitzvah. In his youth, he was one of those entrepreneurial kids who was always engaged in business ventures, ranging from corner lemonade stands to snow removal. He proudly accumulated money and saved it in an account together with his sizable bar mitzvah (quite large from generous family and friends), birthday, and special-occasion gift money. When he married, he chose to make this account the primary marital account, commingling the funds with money he earned while he was married and third-party gift money he received during the marriage.
His wife operated under an alternate paradigm where she very carefully kept her premarital accounts separate. When she received sizable inheritance and gifts from third parties during the marriage, she placed the money in her premarital separate accounts, maintaining their separate property integrity status.
The husband felt they were a team and everything he had was dibs to all. The wife felt that way about her husband’s money but not her own. She reasoned that the husband was the mutually agreed upon primary supporter and his job was to support the family. However he managed to come up with the money, she really did not care, so long as it supported the family and she did not have to worry about it. She rationalized that her role of primary homemaker came with its own responsibilities and stresses, and her husband should not be dependent on her premarital, gift, and inheritance money; she did not want to share it.
Because money is fungible, the husband lost out on any separate property money credit due to his commingling, while the wife preserved hers. The wife operated under a classic “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is ours” prototype.
This is a bit like a chicken and egg situation. Did the wife begin to see that the marriage was going south and consult with a matrimonial attorney at some point to learn how to keep her money separate? Or was it the fact that she seemed to have an attitude of selfishness that ultimately led to the divorce? As stated from the beginning, money issues are often a major component of marriage breakdowns. The husband described himself as feeling like a cow towards the end of his marriage, being milked for his paycheck, his wife being disinterested and dismissive of him for all other purposes. Interestingly, they got along and saw eye to eye in many other respects, including sharing most larger-scale values and child-rearing approaches.
In long-term marriages, some believe that at the end of the road everything should be thrown into the marital pot and split equally; that if they spent that many years together, we’re partners, and complemented each other’s roles in many respects, the notion of separate property should be washed away, regardless of the statute’s letter of the law definitions and classifications. This is a common approach in highly cooperative mediation cases. However, don’t bet on it, as it is the minority approach.
Feel free to contact us with questions regarding separate and marital property classification, appropriate planning, and protection mechanisms.
Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 500
New York, NY 10151
Phone: (646) 884-2324